Nation Building: Three Lessons from an American Shipyard

Austin Tam-George

Two months ago, in October 2022, I was on a tour of the Boston Naval Shipyard with my colleagues in the Senior Executive Fellows cohort at Harvard Kennedy School. The Shipyard is home to the oldest naval ship built in the United States.  The “USS Constitution”, as the ship is called, was launched in 1797.

As the US naval staff took us from deck to deck into the bowels of this iconic ship – a ship that has seen many battles and turbulent seas – my thoughts began to shift towards a series of questions. How is it that a battle ship built in 1797 remains afloat and in almost pristine condition in 2022? What can we learn from the work ethic of the builders of this ship?

Monuments and public institutions are important cultural windows into the soul of a nation, enabling us to revisit its history and assess a nation’s “present condition of health”. So, what does the maintenance of this naval frigate tell us about the American society?

I ask these questions, not as an American citizen, but as a Nigerian. Since 1960 when Nigeria became an independent State, our country has had a rather traumatic encounter with its public memory.  The fratricidal civil war of 1967 to 1970 that claimed over one million lives did not only deepen the divisions within the country, but it also accentuated our nation’s ambiguous attitude towards its national institutions.

In Nigeria, history is an inconvenient subject, and monuments that attempt to reconstruct the past are met with the casual inertia of a disinterested state. But as I moved around this 225-year old ship, inspecting its impeccable line up of large-calibre cannon and feeling its wooden surfaces, I could glean some lessons in nation building, storytelling and leadership. Here are three lessons from that tour:

Embrace Your History: A nation’s history is often more complex than a spotless string of bedtime stories. As a nation evolves, so will its history. A nation may experience moments of war or national shame, as well as periods of great triumph. This means that history is a many-sided coin, and it is better for a nation to embrace this many-sidedness as it tells its stories. No nation needs to pathologize its history.

Despite the imperfections of their history, most Americans seem to be unofficial historians of their country. They seem to have stories behind their canals, bridges and trees. And they have stories about war, resilience and the pursuit of justice. On a flight from Boston to Detroit, a lady told me that she and her colleagues were pursuing a lifetime commitment to identify and retell as many “repressed American stories as possible”. The world is a narrated entity, and storytelling is an integral part of national myth making. A nation that preserves its public memory may likely escape the mistakes of its past.

Civic Leadership Matters:  When the “USS Constitution”, the naval ship, was designated to be scrapped in 1905, it took the intervention of a single American citizen, Moses Gulesian, to rouse civic groups around the United States, to save the world’s oldest ship. Moses Gulesian’s example is important because it reminds us that in any era, nation building and the preservation of public memory are not tasks for the State alone. Citizens and civic groups have critical roles to play in the politics of remembrance.

In Nigeria, social media is proving to be our new virtual frigate. It is the converging point for individuals and groups who are challenging old thinking and advancing new ideas on nation building. But crucially, social media also serves as an alternative archive of Nigeria’s fast-evolving social memory.  In 2020 when the Nigerian government was accused of suppressing evidence of mass killings at anti-police brutality protest sites in the commercial city of Lagos, activists resorted to social media to circulate graphic images of what came to be known as the “Lekki massacre”.

Like most developing countries, Nigeria is witnessing the emergence of a protean, technologized and young civic leadership.  And social media is the daily archive to which we turn if we want to keep track of Nigeria’s contested modernity.

Ask What You Can Do: The maintenance of the naval ship for 225 years is an admirable act of American patriotism. Patriotism is not only a feeling of love for one’s country, it is also a commitment to preserve and engage with its history. The preservation of the iconic frigate has enabled generations of Americans and foreign tourists to visit the ship and reflect on its place in American and global history.

Patriotism is an important value in nation building. And when patriotic feelings are broadly shared by citizens of a country, they could come together for a common cause.   Working together, the United States Congress and civic groups across America have kept the world’s oldest ship active for over two centuries, as a floating lesson in civics and history.

In Nigeria, perceptions of patriotism are almost ideologically dialogic. The political class tends to imagine Nigeria mainly in culinary and edible terms. For this group, Nigeria is the provider of a “national cake” to which a privileged few may go again and again for generous servings. But the problem is, if a nation is conceived as a national cake, then its politics and decision-making institutions will be dominated by insatiable gluttons, not patriots.

But on the other side of the Nigerian civic spectrum is a vibrant arena of innovation and cultural revivalism. This is the space where you find teachers, researchers, creative workers, comedy skit makers, fintech innovators, musicians, culture workers, entrepreneurs, etc, who are committed to moving Nigeria towards a productive rebirth.

For this group of citizens, Nigeria is a land of exciting and infinite promise. Their kinetic passion is to work towards the realization of that sovereign promise where no citizen is left behind. As my colleagues and I departed from the Boston Naval Shipyard, I was convinced that the only way to resolve the dialogic confrontation between the competing visions of Nigeria’s modernity, would be for all its citizens to heed President John F. Kennedy’s civic appeal to his fellow Americans: Ask what you can do for your country.

Dr Austin Tam-George is an alumnus of the Senior Executive Fellows program at Harvard Kennedy School.

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